Reporting wildlife trade on iNaturalist: captive/wild

I’m new on the forum so hello everyone :wave:
I’m starting a new thread about reporting wildlife trade observations on iNaturalist, following a discussion on whether to mark these as captive or wild. The discussion is here.

There has been a few threads talking about reporting wildlife trade on iNat and there are a few projects in that regard - WWF’s Species in trade, Wild birds in cage, Wildlife trade: Mammals - so there is no question on the fact that reporting wildlife trade is beneficial. The question is more on ‘how’ and it seems there is no shared understanding.

Confusion is whether to label as ‘captive’ animals that are in cages, either because kept as pets (but could be coming from the wild) or in trade (for food, pets, religious release, medicine, etc.) The wording induces confusion:

  • Posting an observation: ‘Captive or cultivated’ checkbox
  • When editing there is an additional tooltip near the checkbox:

Was the organism cultivated or captive? For example, was it in a garden, zoo, aquarium or some other situation in which it was only present because human beings intended it to be there? All observations of living things are welcome, but we’d like to know when things are not wild / naturalized.

  • Finally at the bottom of an obs is the DQA field ‘Organism is wild’, which gets downvoted automatically if the captive checkbox is checked. I just discovered it’s possible to upvote it (and it’s less obvious on the app), but I don’t know if people use this a lot.

Based on the checkbox wording, any wildlife seen in trade or pets taken from the wild should be listed as ‘captive’ and so get downvoted as non-wild. This limits the observation grade to Casual, even though that data is useful to researchers and ideally should be Research grade. There seems to be a consensus among people working in conservation active on the forum that these should be labelled as ‘wild’, but users may react either way.

For instance, about half of observations in the Species in Trade project are Casual grade even though most are wild animals. I’ve seen similar confusion in the comments below some obs.

This may lead to obs staying in limbo as each user will vote on the ‘organism is wild’ criteria with his own understanding (for instance on this observation but common elsewhere). The topic has also been discussed here, with users downvoting ‘organism is wild’ where they don’t understand (or check) the context. In the thread, a solution was proposed:

Maybe the problem is that “wild” ↔ “captive” is a false dichotomy, and that can be confusing. The options should probably be “wild” or “domestic” and “free” or “captive”. The typical zoo animal would be (wild, captive). A feral cat would be (domestic, free), it would help in this case to have an “introduce species” flag. Pets like cats and dogs would be (domestic, captive). While free/captive seems to be a clear choice most of the time, wild/domestic can be ambiguous.

Welcoming opinions on this, and whether some change to the wording or classification could make sense given the issue seem unresolved for several years. Hope this as my first forum post is not misplaced and sorry for the long post. Perhaps users working in that field or having discussed this point before could join in: @earthknight @kyoga @neontetraploid @shellfishgene @forfoxsake and @tiwane @cthawley from iNat that have commented on this topic before.

Thank you.


Thanks, Yann.
It seems pretty clear that iNaturalist was probably not set up with documentation of the wildlife trade in the forefront of the creator’s minds. And yet it has the potential to be a powerful resource to people and agencies working in that space. The wild/domestic, free/captive solution you quote would go some way to resolving some of the problems, but would still leave some tricky situations.

Part of the problem is iNat’s requirement for Research grade observations to be linked to a particular time and place. In the case of wild-caught organisms (be they animals or plants), many times the observation will be recorded in a location that is far removed from the place they came from, and the time and place of capture/removal from the wild is not accessible to the observer who wishes to document a particular moment in a trading/trafficking chain.

For this particular setting, another simple observation checkbox such as “Captive, high suspicion that organism was captured from the wild” or “Wild species in trade” would be helpful. Organisms with this checkbox marked would still qualify as Research grade, but they would be in a special category that would be useful to researchers, law enforcement, conservation. Other points where data can be added to iNat would need to be updated to reflect this new category.
But I can see it being used to document some endpoints such as shark fin soup, rhino horn, bush meat trade, etc. It would enable more citizen scientist eyes and ears on the ground in the fight against such practices.

I’ll be interested to see what others have to say in this forum. I’m sure many will have much more experience and better ideas than me.
Cheers, Ruth.

Welcome to the forum, I think the post is fine.

In the situations offered, though, I think it’s pretty unambiguous, that these organisms are captive by iNat’s definition, as they clearly aren’t in the location where they are observed because they want to be, but because humans are tracking them. I also think that this fits with what the commonly understood definition of “captive” means to most users (trained biologist or not).

I agree that these observations can definitely be useful even though they don’t qualify for the “Research Grade” category on iNat due to being captive. There’s a lot of existing discussion here on the forum about how the name for this category isn’t always optimal, so I won’t rehash that. However, one of the main reasons for the “Research Grade” definition is that these observations are exported to GBIF. GBIF does not want to include observations of captive/cultivated organisms, so observations like this should be marked captive for that reason in addition to clearly being captive according to iNat’s definitions and guidelines.

Non Research Grade observations are definitely still usable - they’re accessible via iNat itself (though not GBIF), and, as linked there are projects that track wildlife trade observations even though they are casual. I think it very unlikely that iNat would change the DQA categories in this type of fashion:

There are many existing posts on the forum about the definitions of captive/cultivated and how they apply in various edge cases (though I don’t think this is an edge case). You can also read through past feature requests as well, to see some ideas that have been proposed around these issues.

But there are many ways to use observation fields to accomplish the goal of tracking observations of wildlife trade. In combination with projects, it would be pretty straightforward to gather a set of observations of organisms in the wildlife trade.

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iNaturalist was not meant to become the be-all-end-all of biodiversity. Nor was it meant to be redundant with databases on various specific aspects of biodiversity.

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Apologies, I haven’t find time earlier to reply. Thank you for the replies.
@ruthapp I definitely agree with you and @cthawley your feedback is very interesting. Indeed I think differentiating specimens seen as completely wild/free roaming (with date/location important for GBIF) from wild specimens seen elsewhere because humans have brought them there (as @cthawley mentions) is critically important.

However it’s also critically important all the rest doesn’t end up in a ‘Waste Bin’ (to quote this post) with that dull grey ‘Casual Grade’ that also labels it as “No ID needed”. All sort of data of various usefulness and quality is just lumped together in there.

The dichotomy captive/wild as it is used today doesn’t seem work for many real life situations, because in these situations it is either not mutually exclusive or just insufficient. I have read several posts on the forums and it seems people - including and perhaps especially scientists - have been bothered by this issue for several years (5-6 years+ at least), leading to long discussions on the forum, so I guess my post is just adding to that. Like many, I think it’s perhaps time for a change to the basic wild/captivated and research/casual grade.

iNaturalist was surely not built with all these special cases in mind, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t evolve. All OS/crowdsourcing projects evolve over time, and if iNaturalist is the first app people (increasingly large numbers of non-scientists) will reach out to when they interact with something that they consider ‘nature’ (which seem to be just about anything alive and non-human), then it just make sense to find a solution that encompass all usages.

Also there are other databases (to reply to @jasonhernandez74) - for instance for the wildlife trade - but many of these are private and/or not linked to apps people commonly use. So in terms of actually gathering citizen science data, it’s as if they don’t exist, while iNat does a great job with this (not a surprise WWF set up the ‘wildlife in trade’ projects). There is also a question of accessibility: following a recommendation, I tried to report raptors seen in the wildlife trade on the GRIN app for instance, but I found that rather difficult and gave up (in spite of using eBird occasionally), whereas iNaturalist is built with ease of access in mind.

Finding a solution would also prevent the wrong obs to go into the GBIF (would help also for invasives, escapees, etc.). As I mentioned earlier, about half of obs in the ‘wildlife in trade’ project are marked as wild already.

Good discussions on the topics:
and this feature request

I’ll share a similar feeling I’ve seen elsewhere on the forum, as someone who is spending time logging properly useful obs of captive wild animals in trade, seeing those going to the ‘no ID required’ / ‘casual grade’ waste bin is slightly depressing :)

Anyway, thanks for reading :blush:

help FAQ > What does captive / cultivated mean?

Since this tends to be kind of a gray area, here are some concrete examples:

Captive / cultivated (planted)

  • butterfly mounted in a display case and not appropriately marked with date and location of original collection


  • snake that you just picked up (yes, it’s in your hand where you intended it to be, but the place and time is where the snake intended to be)
  • your museum/herbarium specimens that are appropriately marked with date and location of original collection

Seems pretty clear that those fish, salamanders, and Lepidoptera would all be “wild” as long as the observation’s date and location are based on where the animal was in the wild (not just the photo’s built-in data, if e.g. you catch a fish, bring it home, then photograph it).


After doing some reading and to refine my initial post, I think it burns down to several categories/status that are connected and probably shouldn’t.

There will never be enough annotations or gradations for everybody’s use cases.


I disagree that there should be any sort of official state for captive-bred vs. wild-caught individuals. This is nearly impossible to determine for many/most observations and definitive evidence for this would be nearly impossible to provide in a photo or sound. Captive/wild is already fairly difficult to do with a fair amount of grey area, though it can be evaluated in many cases via photos. Captive-bred vs. wild would rely on even more inference and hearsay. It would also increase the already existing confusion with captive wild (eg, you could have captive-bred, wild individuals and wild-sourced captive individuals). I think trying to make this distinction would actually decrease data quality due to not being able to definitively determine captive/wild breeding for many observations and increasing confusion with existing fields.

This seems like something that would be addressed best with observation fields.


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